Everyone is talking about digitalization as a driver for the future. Raft has taken the concept literally and is developing technology-driven solutions for the logistics industry. CargoForwarder Global (CFG) contacted Raft’s CEO and Co-Founder, James Coombes (JC), and its Chief Growth Office, Lionel van der Walt (LvdW), for an in-depth look at what Raft does, how it came about, where it is at, and how it slots into the current logistics environment. The result is a 2-part interview, with Part 2 following in next Sunday’s CFG.
CFG: In layman's terms, how does Raft differ from existing digital solutions for freight forwarders to date? What exactly does it do?
JC: Raft is really different. Unlike other freight forwarding software, which is built assuming human data entry and constant human process oversight, Raft’s goal is to build for a world where technology drives the show and humans are only there to supervise and manage complex exceptions. And, of course, run the relationships. It’s really a world apart. We currently do this by picking off specific parts of the shipment lifecycle, like accounts payable, or customs declarations prep, among others, and providing the tools to automate those specific processes. But our ambition is to go much, much further.
CFG: How does it slot into the known forwarder TMS providers listed on the Raft website?
JC: Raft is a layer on top of our customers’ existing systems that drives automation. Our platform is engineered for integrations with common systems and tools used in daily freight forwarding and customs brokerage operations, including TMS providers, ERP systems, payments providers, and other technology providers such as carbon emissions calculators.
CFG: Founded as vector.ai in 2017, the company rebranded to Raft in 2022 - why the name "Raft"? What does it stand for? And what does the logo reflect?
JC: We were originally called vector.ai back in 2017 - a term which has some pretty strong AI connotations, and while we’re still very much an AI company, we also wanted a name that was more of a nod to our industry, so ‘Raft’ was born. We loved the nautical theme, felt like we could really own the brand in our industry and, on top of that, Raft means ‘many’, which, together with our logo representing the confluence of many roads leading to one common intersection, really resonated!
CFG: What triggered the founding in 2017 as a supply-chain first? What was the initial pain point to be solved?
JC: My entire career has been in supply chain in some shape or form, and I’ve been lucky to see things from a lot of different perspectives, from operations to finance. The original pain point we addressed in 2017, was incredibly granular. We set out to automate the Letter of Credit (LC) process for trade finance banks, but we quickly realized that a lot of the pain – or at least higher transaction volumes – was more upstream at the freight forwarder level, so we pursued that. Interestingly, things have come full circle because we’re starting to offer financial services to freight forwarders using the data in the documentation, in close collaboration with partners such as PayCargo and others, and because of our early work in LC, we understand this market really well.
CFG: Is it correct to say that the first 5 years were developing the platform, and that Raft launched properly in 2022? Is the freight forwarding world ready for AI, or are forwarders sceptical/reticent?
JC: In some ways, it is correct, we’ve been working steadily on Raft for a long time now in close collaboration with some of the biggest freight forwarders and customs brokers in the world, and we’ve been quite clear about our roadmap from the start – it’s just taken a lot of patience to get here! I wouldn’t say we were stealth but early on, we definitely prioritized building out our core product and making our customers happy vs. marketing, and we feel that approach has put us in a good position now. We believe it is always better to under-promise and over-deliver. That said, we’ve not been building in isolation; we’ve had customers using our platform since 2018. I believe it is critical to expose your product to the reality of your users and we don’t shy away from seeking constant customer feedback.
Freight forwarders are absolutely ready for AI. It just has to be delivered in the right way. We’ve been working on delivering AI to enterprise for years. We’ve seen all the pitfalls and so we know what it takes across the board, from a sales, customer success, and product perspective. The constraints are around scale, access to data, efficient error corrections, and, probably most importantly, user adoption and training. One thing we know is this: every employee working in any service industry in the world will have to learn how to use AI in their daily tasks to work more effectively. It isn’t a question of if, but when. Now is the time for freight forwarders to upskill their staff and teach them how to use AI in their daily tasks. It will be worth the investment.
CFG: How many forwarding companies already use Raft? Where is the current customer base located?
JC: 60+ freight forwarders use Raft in 30+ countries globally.
CFG: Is Raft globally available? What are the challenges to achieving this? Do the different customs procedures in different countries pose limitations/issues, for example?
LvdW: Yes, Raft is globally available. Our customers use Raft across many countries, including Australia, Vietnam, India, multiple EU countries, the UK, and the US. Raft has a flexible integration approach, which allows us to work with local customs applications. Configurability is a key pillar of our platform, meaning we can account for different data points, procedures, and workflows around the world.
Look out for Part 2 of the exclusive Raft interview next Sunday.
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